21 - Publican & Pharisee, Feb 21, 2016 (with audio)

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II Timothy 3:10-15

Luke 18:10-14

I see an inner logic in the lectionary of the Church’s liturgical cycle, in which the Sunday of Zaccheus is followed by the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. This Lenten business of attaining the Paschal joy of Zaccheus is a very delicate thing. In our zeal, we can take up the ascetic disciplines of Lent as our cross and intensify our “self-restraint, our fasting, almsgiving, hospitality, prayers, spiritual reading, stillness, sleeping on the ground, vigils, or any of the other things which characterize a life lived according to God,” and still completely miss the point (Cf. St Maximus, 3rd C. Var.Texts, §70) – so much so that these “pious” acts only bring about our condemnation and not our salvation. This is because we do these disciplines in the service of the self-esteem or pride that drives everything we do and say. Pierced by the nail of our self-esteem, (Ibid, §68) we pursue virtue not for God’s glory but for our own (§65). Blind to our narcissism, we take up the ascetic life of the Church for the sake of our own reputation, believing that as others are impressed with us, and as we are impressed with ourselves, so God is impressed with us and approves of us.

In our Orthodox tradition, we call this self-love that clothes itself with religious zeal prelest. Prelest is very subtle and very near to the ascetic believer. “The demons of pride,” says St Maximus, “of self-esteem, desire for popularity and hypocrisy never act by trying to dampen the ardor of the virtuous man. Instead, they cunningly reproach him for his shortcomings where the virtues are concerned, and suggest that he intensifies his efforts, encouraging him in his struggle. They do this in order to entice him to give his full attention to them; in this way they make him lose a proper balance and moderation, and lead him imperceptibly to a destination other than the one to which he thought he was going.” St Maximus continues: “Neither do these demons hate self-restraint, fasting, alms-giving, hospitality, the singing of psalms, spiritual readings, stillness, the most sublime doctrines, sleeping on the ground, vigils, or any of the other things which characterize a life lived according to God, so long as the aim and purpose of a person trying to live such a life are tilted in their direction.” (§§69-70) In other words, even our religious discipline becomes a way of maintaining our distance from God.

That the Church opens the Lenten Triodion with the Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee tells us, I think, that spiritual pride is the root of all that is earthly in us and it is this that we are striving to put to death by the power of Christ’s Cross. “Self-love,” says St Maximus, “is the origin and mother of evil. When this is eradicated all the things which derive from it are eradicated as well. For, when self-love is absent, not the slightest trace or form of evil can exist in any way at all.” (1st C. Var. Txts, §33) In the first week of Great Lent, we will be reading from the prophet, Isaiah: “Hear the words of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom (Israel!): attend to the law of God, thou people of Gomorrha (Israel, again!) ‘Of what value to me is the abundance of your sacrifices?’ saith the LORD: ‘I am full of whole-burnt offerings of rams, and I delight not in the fat of lambs, and the blood of bulls and goats. Neither shall ye come with these to appear before me; for who has required these things ar your hands? Though ye bring fine flour, it is vain. Incense is an abomination to me. I cannot bear your new moons, and your Sabbaths, and the great day, your fasting, and rest from work, your new moons also, and your feasts my soul hates. You have become loathsome to me. (You are dogs, defiled: cf. last Sunday’s Gospel of the Canaanite woman!) I will no more pardon your sin. When ye stretch forth your hand, I will turn away mine eyes from you: and though ye make many supplications, I will not hearken to you: for your hands are full of blood.’” (Isa 1:10-15. Again, think of last Sunday’s Gospel!) “You draw near to me with your lips, but in your hearts you are far from me!” (Isa 29:13 LXX)

What’s precious to the LORD is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart He does not despise. So, as we’ve drawn near to the gates of the Great Fast, the Church has been showing us how to prepare the Way of the LORD in our soul. Beloved faithful, that Way of the LORD leads us inward into the wilderness of our soul and into the tomb of our heart. If we desire to fulfill our baptismal oath to unite ourselves to Christ, it means that we must unite with Him in the tomb of our heart and, in the power of His life-creating death, put to death what is earthly in us, which isn’t our bodies but our self-love that expresses itself in our gluttony, our lust and our greed.

Beloved faithful, our bodies are not evil. They are holy, for they were made to be temples of God. We fast not to put our bodies to death but our self-love to death by attacking our self-love where it expresses itself in our bodies: in our love for food far beyond what we need, and for the sweet things of this life far beyond what we need.

At the heart of our fast, if you will, is our heart; i.e., the eye that is the lamp of our body. By means of the Fast - not just with our stomach but also with our eyes and ears – we turn away from the sights and sounds, the smells and tastes of the world in order to get quiet inside. This is how we go into the wilderness of our souls because as we cut out all the distractions and diversions we like to “feed” on, we discover the emptiness and loneliness, even the darkness that shrouds our soul. This is the “wilderness” of our soul that I’m talking about. With our inner eye, we begin to make out the thorns and thistles that have grown up from the ground of our soul: the inner and outer habits of thoughts and behavior by which we seek to escape from or shield ourselves from the memories of disappointments, failures, the guilt and shame from indiscretions and unconfessed transgressions that haunt us. Our resolve to keep the Fast serves our resolve to let ourselves feel our inner hunger and thirst, and to fill that not with the worldly distractions of food and pleasure that we’ve filled them with before but with the Word of God in the prayers given us by the Church. This is the Word of God that is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and if we adhere to it by eating it and drinking it assiduously, it leads us down to the division of our soul and spirit until it pierces the tomb of our heart where we see beneath the inflated emptiness of our self-esteem, that we are but dust and ashes, that we are “dogs”, that we are “sinners” in need of God. This is what’s earthly in us that we are working to put to death by uniting ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death – which is the Fast. It is this self-love together with all the wounds and traumas and the behaviors that go with it that it has produced over the years, this is what’s earthly in us that we are putting to death by the Cross – the Church’s ascetic disciplines – of the Fast.

This is the death that “justifies” us; i.e., it is the death that cleanses us from the death that puts us to death so that we begin to come to life in the likeness of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. I think the “likeness” of Christ’s Holy Resurrection may be the joy and the light that we begin to taste even now in this “body of death” as we take up the work of faith of denying ourselves to follow Christ into the wilderness of our soul all the way into tomb of our heart. We get but a taste in this joy of the good things that God does not withhold from those who love Him, yet even this taste is enough to begin the transformation of our souls. And, I believe we can say it is the deepening joy that comes from a deepening sense of one’s unworthiness, a growing desire to decrease and not to increase, to be counted as nothing and not as something in the eyes of the world that may be the “sign”, the “mark” of our being “justified” in the eyes of God; i.e., raised to life in the Holy Resurrection of Christ. Amen!